It’s Scotland’s Responsibility

Craig Dalzell

It’s fair to say that the SNP has been on a long journey with its attitudes towards fossil fuels in Scotland. From the days of the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign the party had long advocated for the maximum possible extraction of fossil fuels from Scotland (an attitude it shared with successive UK Governments, albeit with a substantial disagreement over how and where public revenue derived from those resources were spent).

More recently, a surprisingly strong public campaign against fracking in Scotland led to the SNP shifting its position (more reluctantly than some would have liked) away from maximum possible extraction of onshore fossil fuels (which is a policy area that the Scottish Government has substantial control over via devolution). We’ve also seen a ban placed on coal extraction in Scotland (albeit a decade after coal was last commercially extracted in Scotland – it’s apparently a lot easier to stop a new mine from opening than to tell workers in an existing one that it is closing down…). Maximum extraction of offshore oil remained, however, a dominant shibboleth in Scottish politics until much more recently when then Energy Secretary Michael Matheson surprised a lot of folk (myself included) when in January 2023 he announced that the Scottish Government was reversing course on the long-standing “It’s Scotland’s Oil” policy and would start to consider how to wind down production before maximum extraction had been achieved though it must be said that wind-down plans announced at the time weren’t significantly faster than plans announced by the industry on economic terms – see the point about coal mines again – and would still be too slow to meet climate targets. At the same time, it was announced formally that the Scottish Government would “presume against” support for new oil and gas extraction. The hook this policy hangs on started in 2021 when the UK announced that it would develop a plan of “climate checkpoints” that new oil licences would have to pass before being approved. The Scottish Government latched onto this plan – repeating many times since that they would only support new licences if they passed those checkpoints (despite never explaining what they thought a plan that passed a reasonable climate checkpoint would look like).

And this week, Rishi Sunak announced “hundreds” of new oil licences which clearly have made no reference to the promised climate checkpoints and would clearly not have passed them if they had. The Scottish Government has said a few words against the plan, but we need more than that. We need to know what, after making such seismic shifts of policy in this area, they actually plan to do to resist or block new oil extraction in Scotland. It is simply not enough to throw up their collective hands and say “it’s reserved”. Doing so would render the previous statements not just pointless but outright disingenuous and counter-productive – the actions of a government willing to bask in the good headlines created by the announcements, but not willing to do the work to make them come to pass. I don’t believe that the Scottish Government has been “deafeningly silent” on this but actions will speak far louder than empty words.

Much of the oil and gas sector is, of course, reserved to the UK Government but Scotland does have substantial devolved powers it could use to block or disrupt development of new oil. The Scottish Government should start announcing which of them it plans to use to ensure that Scotland gets back on track to meeting its climate targets. Here are a few ideas:

1. Planning Permission

This is the main power used in Scotland to block reserved energy plans. The UK might approve a licence for a new nuclear power plant or onshore fracking well in Scotland but it is the Scottish Government that controls the planning permission that allows those facilities to be constructed. Offshore is different in that it is the UK that controls permission for those facilities but they do not operate as isolated and self-sustaining islands. Wherever facilities that support offshore activities are built onshore, the Scottish Government has jurisdiction and could block planning permission which could render it difficult or impossible to make an economic case for the offshore extraction. A key example of this kind of thing can be seen in 2020 when the Scottish Government overruled Shetland Council and extended the permission granted to a facility that provides housing for on- and offshore oil and gas workers. If an analogous facility is proposed to house offshore workers for these new licences, then the Scottish Government could block its construction. The same goes for transport facilities, processing and storage hubs or perhaps even pipelines.

2. Environmental Taxes

Scotland must get to grips with the climate emergency and a core part of that will and must be taxation on emissions and other pollutants (it’s a core part of our Common Home Plan and was endorsed by the Scottish Climate Assembly). Applying these taxes to offshore activities might be tricky (especially if the limits of devolution mean that the climate taxes have to be controlled by Local Authorities rather than the Scottish Government) but it is still worth exploring. The same goes for profit and windfall taxes or other levies that could be applied to the companies involved in extraction. If the taxes have to be applied somewhat indirectly (targeted onshore emissions only, perhaps) then they should be set at a level commensurate to the offshore emissions that the Government can’t tax.

3. A Competitive Just Transition

The Scottish Government is already committed to a “Just Transition” whereby oil and gas workers are not left on the spoil heap of history the way coal workers were when Scotland “transitioned” away from that fossil fuel. At the same time, the offshore renewable sector is in great need of skilled engineers who know the challenges of building and maintaining structures in environments as harsh as the North Sea. It’s not for no reason that oil workers make some of the best offshore wind workers.

In fact, such is the scale of the renewable transition that there literally aren’t enough feet to fill the boots we’ll need. Scotland could transition every oil worker in the country into renewables and we’d still need more. And the oil sector itself has experienced shortages of bodies itself. It wouldn’t take much of a push for Scotland to cause real problems for offshore oil developments if we started poaching key personnel by providing Just Transition offers they can’t refuse. If only we had a Scottish Energy Development Agency to coordinate such a plan, a Scottish National Infrastructure Company to develop projects and train the workers and a Scottish National Energy Company to employ them. (All three agencies were passed by overwhelming or unanimous votes by several SNP and Green conferences and all three adopted by the Scottish Government, though the first two haven’t been started and the last one was later cancelled)

4. Defund Oil

Scottish public bodies are heavily invested in oil companies. Campaign group Platform has £1.2 billion of investments from local council pension funds alone with more in University pension funds and other public investments. These investments are bad economics in a time when, very soon, fossil fuels will be a stranded asset (or there’ll be no-one around to spend the profits…whichever comes first). From a pure economic standpoint, it makes sense for Scottish public bodies to divest from these companies. From a political standpoint, the Scottish Government could take a principled stand and lead a coordinated action whereby all public bodies divest their portfolios simultaneously to send a message that climate-wrecking investments are not welcome. Had the Scottish Government campaigned for and obtained powers for the Scottish National Investment Bank to take up those investments then that would create a billion pound pool of money to be invested in the Scottish economy. As they have not, it’s going to be a bit trickier but during his leadership campaign pitch, Humza Yousaf did voice support for more community renewable projects. Imagine a billion pounds worth of investment in public-public partnerships to build wind, solar and geothermal energy projects around Scotland – owned by the communities they serve. That, surely, is a far better use of pension fund money than continuing to sink it into fossil fuels that reduce our chances of ever being able to collect those pensions.

5. No Public Subsidy or Support

The Scottish Government should look at every other area where fossil fuel companies invest in the Scottish economy and declare them persona non-grata when it comes to public support. No subsidies for fossil fuels. Or if they want to go harder, no subsidies for companies involved in fossil fuels (not even their renewable sectors). This could well extend to projects like ScotWind which is heavily invested in by some of the world’s most polluting companies like BP and Shell. Stating that these companies will get no support from the Scottish Government while companies that are 100% renewable do would be a powerful statement of intent. A company’s involvement in fossil fuels may even be taken into consideration when it comes to offshore renewable licences. Force the company to choose between the two, knowing they’ll face further objections and resistance if they choose unwisely.

I’m sure there are other possibilities available to the Scottish Government if they go looking for them. That they haven’t already is a sign of weakness and willingness to say the right words but to immediately and totally capitulate when it comes to taking action. If they want the good headlines in future, they must be prepared to back up their promises. If they fail here, now and on this then we simply cannot trust any of their future announcements to be anything other than the same. It might well be Scotland’s Oil. And that means it is Scotland’s responsibility to see it stewarded in a responsible manner – which in the current climate context means keeping it in the ground and not allowing themselves or anyone else to cause more damage to the planet than they already have.

7 thoughts on “It’s Scotland’s Responsibility”

  1. I use a wide variety of products that are made from fossil fuels in my daily life – all of us do (including climate activists who target ordinary people). For as long as we still depend on these products, it makes more sense that we exploit our own fossil fuels rather than import fossil fuels extracted from somewhere else in the world. Reducing the supply of fossil fuels when the demand has not reduced merely pushes up the cost of these essential products and rewards those who are producing the fossil fuels.
    So let’s do things in the correct order: eliminate the demand for fossil fuels by having better/less expensive alternatives available (including for all the things that currently require fossil fuels for their production) and then there will be no economic case to continue extraction.

    1. See my article here from 2021 – the world already produces enough bio-fuels to convert to bio-feedstocks for the non-fuel uses of oil. (Not to mention that many of those non-fuel uses – like the single use plastics – have no place in the Circular Economy we need to create as well). /oil-barons-cant-survive/

      Non-fuel uses are, in economic terms, a marginal side-product of the industry so any possibility of creating change in the extraction sector by changing those products is also marginal (though convincing folk otherwise has been useful marketing for fossil fuels…)

      Conversely, trying to eliminate the fuel uses without also transitioning the non-fuel products would be disastrous as the economics of oil extraction simply don’t work if 85%-90% of the fossil fuel companies’ customers go away.

      1. Hi Craig, non-fuel uses of fossil fuels may indeed by a side issue compared to fuel uses, but if you take a look at the list of items that require fossil fuel for their production it is quite clear that life will change drastically – for the worse – if these products are denied to us. ‘Just stopping oil’ before alternatives are developed is not a realistic approach. We need to be able to persuade voters to support policies that will benefit the planet and we will be unable to do that by telling them their lives must change drastically for the worse if they do.

        1. Once again though, there isn’t a single oil-based product (from asphalt to aspirin) that cannot be produced with a bio-feedstock and the world already produces enough feedstock to meet current demand if only we stop burning it. However, many of those products could and should be reduced, redesigned or eliminated. Life will be better if we get rid of single use plastics. Better still if you can borrow and lease high quality goods from a sharing library instead of buying cheaper versions that are designed to break or become obsolete and can’t be repaired.

  2. George Sutherland

    Disagree with your comment that the SNP has always supported a “maximum extraction policy”. In the 1970s and 1980s the SNP argued that extraction was taking place far too quickly and that the speed of extraction was simply following the Westminster Government attitude that the maximum extraction policy was necessary to support the UK economy.

    1. Even as they were arguing to slow down the rate of extraction (a sensible policy in the 70s and 80s especially after the discovery of ‘Dutch disease’ in 1982) the policy was still for maximum extracted volume. That “every last drop” policy remained until January of this year.

  3. Willie Hutch

    Not at all sure that the world does indeed produce enough bio feedstock to replace petroleum products.

    The UK certainly cannot devote enough land to deliver what is required and many many countries are exactly the same. The Ukraine, a hot topic these days, produces more grains and cereals than it needs. But this, prior to the war, fed much of the world. Maybe when the war stops, Ukraine could divert all its grain and cereal production to bio-feedstock. Eat it, or drive with it or wrap with it – you can’t have it all. That I am afraid is a big problem.

    But fear not, the answer may be closer to hand that we might dare think. Too many people on the planet all wanting to consume, consume and consume. With the way geo political tensions are going, and the scramble for resources, humankind, a veritable parasite on the planet, may in fact self regulate its numbers. The big bang, either by war, or by engineered pestilence may be coming. The world needs a good slaughter every now and then and without wishing to be grimly obscene or frivolous about the mess we are in, it certainly looks like we could be headed that way.

    But I’m all right Jack it’ll be someone else who suffers?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top